Release Date: Apr 26, 2011
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Genre(s): Indie Rock, American Trad Rock
It’s a shame the two lead tracks from the Donkeys’ debut, Born With Stripes, are kind of, well—just there. There’s nothing especially wrong with “Don’t Know Who We Are” or “I Like the Way You Walk”, but there is little memorable about them either. With their simple guitar lines and deliberately artless vocals, the two songs sound similar to a thousand other alt-rock tunes of the past decades.
Pitched somewhere between echoes of '70s country-rock hybrids and a moody, bass-led punch that feels more like the ghost of Joy Division than Gram Parsons, the Donkeys' third album, Born with Stripes, is a quietly enjoyable listen, something where emotions get expressed with often restrained energy -- but, crucially, never lacking that core energy to start with, instead of simply disappearing into a haze of peaceful easy feelings. "New Blue Stockings" is a full-on loungey swing and kick from 1966, thanks to the keyboards in particular, while the most blatant moment of fusion could be "West Coast Raga," where a sitar and guitar part kick things off in equal measure (though the concluding "East Coast Raga" is understandably not far off in that kind of feel). The woozily beautiful arrangement always seems on the verge of collapse in "Kaleidoscope" but constantly follows a central structure, a kind of psychedelia that doesn't go out of its way to advertise itself as such.
Born With Stripes will not be Wire magazine’s album of the year. Nor will it be heralded as the antidote to post-millennial techno-dread. Born With Stripes is not the figurehead of any subversive underground movement, but it is a fine indie rock record, which suits me just dandy. See, styles - such as indie rock’n’roll - that rarely bother to adapt and evolve don’t get on my wick like they do on some people's.
Born With Stripes, The Donkeys‘ third album, has received numerous comparisons to Pavement, both from critics and the band’s own press release. While some of the space-age noodling is certainly reminiscent of the ’90s alt rock heroes, and the sitar-drenched instrumentals “West Coast Raga” and “East Coast Raga” sound like the second half of Wowee Zowee desert cut “Half A Canyon”, the similarities end there, and this isn’t a bad thing. As flawless as Pavement’s catalogue is, there’s more than enough snark in today’s indie world, and what sets The Donkeys apart from other retro-inspired brethren is their mellow sincerity, even if it sometimes causes their music to plateau.
The Donkeys are a Californian band through and through. There's no escaping it. A four-piece from San Diego, they've spent the past few years developing a close relationship to distinctly homegrown source materials, bridging the gap between the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Buffalo Springfield, and the Grateful Dead. But here, on Born With Stripes, they also showcase their admiration for a band that's more commonly associated with indie rock nation than its founding members' home state: Pavement.
On their first two records, the Donkeys were dusty, countrified throwbacks, but it wasn't about anachronism or revivalism. These guys really seemed to play from the gut, there was no pretense to it. Sure, these guys are from SoCal, but it seemed like more than the typical sun-soaked rock-out. The songs -- particularly on the often excellent Living on the Other Side -- were just too good, the cascading solos too tight, the clever twists too well executed.